A new study discusses the social factors that influence crime rates in Mexico City’s most violent neighborhoods, an approach that could help guide a revised security policy more focused on on social aid rather than chasing gang leaders.
In their new paper “What Explains Criminal Violence in Mexico City: A Test of Two Theories of Crime,” Carlos Vilalta and Robert Muggah look for explanations in the disparity of crime rates across different Mexico City neighborhoods. As is typical for a big city, crime tends to concentrate in certain areas, the study notes:
Roughly two thirds of all criminal investigations occur within a 37-mile radius from the geographic center of the sprawling city. What is more, just ten hot spot municipalities account for more than one quarter of all reported crimes.
The authors explore two possible theories that would explain the geographical variation of crime rates within Mexico City.
The first theory is that crime is primarily driven by what the study defines as “social disorganization.” The study picks several factors that can be used to measure this: the percentage of female heads of households, the proportion of recent transplants living there, the number of bars per thousand residents, and the social equality index measured by the government. The idea is that the higher these statistics are within a given area, the greater the level of social disorganization, which is an indicator of a neighborhood’s propensity to have high crime rates.
The second theory is that a neighborhood is more likely to have higher crime rates because of deteriorated social and government institutions, or what the study calls “institutional anomie.” There are four proxies used to measure this: the rate of voter turnout in Congressional elections, the Gini coefficient of economic inequality, the percentage of primary school grade retention, and, once again, the percentage of female heads of households.
Muggah and Vilalta’s work suggests that, as in other areas of the world, both institutional anomie and social disorganization are applicable in Mexico City as predictors of crime. In other words, much of what determines whether one area or another is a criminal hot spot are the same factors that measure social disorganization and institutional anomie.
There are several ways in which this more approach can help improve government policy in terms of targeting crime rates. For example, since female-led households are often the product of births out of wedlock, concentrating efforts to spread access to contraceptives in high-crime areas could have a disproportionately pronounced effect on crime rates citywide.
In theory, the same could be true of increasing the ability of certain neighborhoods to absorb new arrivals into the social fabric — for example, by encouraging children to progress in grade school until graduation.
There are other ways in which the ideas found within this study could potentially alter Mexico’s security policy. The number of voices calling on Mexico to expand the social component of its anti-crime strategy has grown in recent years, often as a counterpoint to the militarized approach embraced by many recent presidents, above all Felipe Calderón. This study goes beyond the broader critiques, and offers some specific insights into how to implement a more socially conscious crime strategy.
There are also conceptual implications to the study. Mexican policymakers and security analysts alike tend to conceive of insecurity as the product of something resembling criminal geopolitics, in which cartel leaders are capable of shaping and reshaping the criminal landscape with a single decision, much like heads of state. A Sinaloa boss decides to make a play for Juárez, and the national murder rate spikes. A Guerrero kingpin decides to embrace extortion and kidnapping to boost his organization’s revenues, and the effects ripple across the state and beyond.
The governmental responses to insecurity have also been similarly broad and overarching, typically consisted of sweeping political reforms and institutional changes on a national level. Vilalta and Muggah’s research doesn’t discard the validity of such efforts, but it suggests that such a focus is incomplete, and that Mexico should make space in its toolbox for more nuanced tools.
Furthermore, organized crime has much stronger roots in places like Juárez — or Culiacán or Nuevo Laredo or many other locales — than in the nation’s capital. While treating insecurity as a sort of off-the-books geopolitics is mistakenly oversimplified, in many parts of the country it may still be true that the social and institutional dynamics have less influence over security than do a small number of criminal bosses. In such cases, a predominant focus on criminal groups rather than neighborhood-level interventions may make more sense.